Living in the Wake

February/March, 2005

By Judy Ann Newton; Images by Idris Ahmed/copyright IFAW/I

As the weeks pass by, the news media has turned the focus away from the Tsunami in search of the latest political bites and back stabbings. It is a sad note on our society that the news thinks that, for the most part, we have a three-week attention span for a story as horrific as the death of 266,000 people. However, ratings rule the airwaves and sales determine the headlines.

There are many questions and doubts about the future of the affected regions. Conflicted accounts regarding the status of the reefs and the health of the fish have been batted around since the first waves subsided. These issues, plus the future of the dive industry in areas famous as dive destinations will only be answered in the course of time.

I am sure that none of us are callous to the misery and suffering of millions of people because of the earthquake and tsunami, but in an effort to report the issues that are most relevant to our readers, the editorial staff has turned to readers comments as our guide in this issue. The three most prevalent queries involve the status of the reefs, the condition of dive operations and what it was like to be underwater during the tsunami.

Diving in the deep end:
The survival stories that came from divers on Koh Phi Phi seemed astounding. Some dive boats reported minor swells and unusual waves while others that were anchored just off shore, were helpless witnesses to the horror of the waves crashing onto the beaches. Crediting calmness, following buddy procedures and remarkable luck, divers came out of the water to scenes of total devastation.
Sunday 26 December was a calm, sunny day in paradise when Craig Manssen (formerly of Auckland) dipped into the inviting waters off Koh Phi Phi. Diving with his wife and her sister, their only awareness of the tsunami waves overhead was a sudden surge and a drop in visibility.
Alasdair Stewart was on holiday from Scotland and also diving on a reef about half a kilometre away from Phi Phi Island when the wave struck. The strength of the surge and a strong current dragged Stewart and his dive instructor 30 metres straight down in a matter of moments.
Americans Faye Linda Wachs and Gene Kim were also underwater off Koh Phi Phi that fateful morning. Caught in the force of the wave overhead, the couple were battered in the surge, but survived their ordeal.
Luke Watson of England was videotaping a group of divers when the sea began to churn around them. He was left clinging to a rock formation 12 metres underwater as the waves current pulled at his body.
Dr Stuart Breisch of the USA recalled that visibility disappeared as bubbles turned the sea white. Whoosh, I went through a crevice and within a few moments, all the divers from his group were scattered over a mile. The divers returned to the boat to learn over the boats radio that there had been an earthquake. Breischs 15-year-old daughter died on Khao Lak beach that day.
Mook Island in southern Thailand attracts thousands of divers each year because of the magnificent Emerald Cave. The 80-metre-long limestone grotto resonates with crystal green brilliance when the sun shines through a hole in the ceiling. On that Sunday morning 80 divers were trapped in the cave when the waves rolled in. Police were able to rescue all the divers except for a Malaysian couple who died before help could reach them.
Selective destruction:
If you have ever seen the path of a tornado, it appears to be a remarkable feat of geometry, applied physics and the theory of chaos rolled into one. An entire street can simply disappear in a flash while the house next door doesnt lose so much as a flower petal on the hanging baskets. From eyewitness reports, it would appear that the force of the tsunami had much the same effect on the reefs.
The rupture in the ocean floor at the epicentre runs 1200 kilometres in length. The fault displacement (movement) measured 15 metres. The effect of such a snap in the earths surface was like a rubber band, rearranging the Indian Oceans geographical features above and below the sea level. Islands have vanished, coastlines are submerged, and shipping lanes will have to be redrawn. But perhaps the most devastating damage to the sea has been in the debris and soil that has been dumped into the sea by the receding waves. The resulting turbidity clouds can block the sunlight and smother coral reefs that depend on clear, pristine waters for coral polyps and algae to survive. Scientists have acknowledged that corals have a self-cleaning mechanism, but they are uncertain if damaged corals can withstand such an onslaught of debris.
An assessment mission from the United Nations Development Programme reported that only five percent of coastal coral reefs in the affected area had been damaged. However, a preliminary survey sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the National Park Department and dive associations from Phuket and Bangkok came up with different conclusions. Thai oceanographer Sakanan Plathong concluded that 20 per cent of the reefs surveyed around the Similan Islands had been destroyed and 60 per cent of the corals had fallen. Plathong also said if divers manage to move fallen reefs back into an upright position within a month, the coral should survive and keep growing.
n a further warning, Sakanan estimated that 40 percent of the reefs could be destroyed if the reefs did not receive immediate attention. In response to this survey, the Thai government is considering the recruitment of 200 volunteer divers to clear the reefs of debris and upright the corals.
While the situation is bad but not hopeless for the reefs, circumstances are much worse for endangered turtles. Twenty-four turtles were unceremoniously forsaken onto the shoreline of Phuket Island in the wake of the tsunami. Many were dead, but others suffered from cuts and broken shells.
Twenty of thirty olive ridley turtles from a successful breeding centre were washed out to sea and scientists are uncertain if the turtles could exist in the open sea. The green, hawksbill, leatherback and olive ridley turtles live close to shore, which made them particularly defenceless to the crushing waves. If strong swimmers such as sharks and dolphins were dumped more than one-half mile inland, then there would have been little chance for turtles.
A marine biologist with Reef Watch Marine Conservation said the latest generation of leatherback, green sea, hawksbill, and olive ridley turtles has been washed away. Furthermore, the nesting beaches in South Andaman, Little Andaman, and the Nicobar group of islands have almost vanished as all these islands have gone down by one to three metres [three to 10 feet] due to tectonic activity.
The dugongs in the Andamans and Nicobar Islands are also at grave risk. Listed as threatened marine mammals, these slow movers are ill-equipped to manoeuvre in violent currents. Whether or not the dwindling populations of dugong have survived will be a matter of time.
As if this was not enough bad news, the loss of sandy shoals, shallow sea beds and mangroves are a major concern. An interruption in the food chain would have far reaching effects for decades to come.
On an optimistic note, NOAA researchers claim that usually there is very little tsunami damage in deep ocean water. The main threats to deep water remain unsustainable fishing (particularly methods involving explosives), soil erosion, coastal development and reef mining.
It will be some time before the full impact on reef and sea life will be known. The damage that occurred 26 December 2004 was just the beginning for gentle dwellers of the sea. The destruction will continue to manifest as we see the impact on the food chain and breeding.
Depending on the kindness of strangers:
Mark Twain once remarked that Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Take a page from the same book because the death of the Asian dive industry due to the tsunami has been greatly exaggerated.
In Thailand, about 10 percent of an estimated 78 square kilometres has been damaged and only a few of the premiere dive sites have been banned during rehab. The Andaman Islands predicts a 1,000 tonne coral clean-up operation will be completed by March 2005.
In all affected regions, it is important to remember that the waves affected only the coastal regions. We have all been reminded that if you take a few steps from the beach, you would not see any damage, except to the economy. Most of these areas survive on tourist income and if divers are frightened away by reports of total devastation, the result will be exactly that – total devastation for the dive industry.
While many of the beach businesses in Phuket were destroyed, 80 percent of the hotels have been unaffected. The Dive Operators Club of Thailand affirmed some sites were affected slightly, others not at all. There is absolutely no truth to rumours of heavy devastation and loss of marine life. We have had divers out diving since the waves and surge hit, and although there are some changes to dive sites, mostly around Island No 9 in the Similans, all of the areas still offer world-class diving.
The islands of Koh Phi Phi and Koh Krabi were severely damaged and it will take a long time for their infrastructures to recover. However, the dive operators will attest that the diving is worth any land-based inconveniences.
In the Maldives, the islands on the eastern side of the atoll were damaged while the west escaped practically unscathed. The damage in the Maldives was not due to wave action but rising sea levels which submerged many of the islands which, at the best of times, are only one metre above sea level. According to the Maldives Tourism Board, more than two-thirds of the resorts are open and fully operational. We are also asked to remember that the surge in sea levels would have had no effect on the undersea life, which remains brilliant – as always.
For many divers, we consider these regions to be Heaven on Earth and give it even higher ratings underwater. If there is any chance for recovery, these areas and businesses need our support. Donations to Tsunami Recovery are a great start, but months from now those charities will be forgotten and searching for money.
It is often said that it is charitable to give a hungry man a fish, but it is more charitable to teach him how to fish. Dive operators will only recover and thrive if we continue to support them with out travel dollars. If you are in doubt whether your favourite dive destination is open and ready with an eager smile, check them out on the internet. I encourage you to contact your favoured dive operator and let him know you will be returning as soon as your time permits. Financial support of the dive business infrastructure is crucial for these companies in crisis. Besides, how else can you do a good deed and get to dive in Heaven all on the same tank?
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